Spam! That’s one of the most unpleasant things on the Internet! It can take various colors and is sometimes difficult to clearly define.
One of the top sources of information on the subject of spam describes it as “flooding the Internet with many copies of the same message, in an attempt to force the message on people who would not otherwise choose to receive it.” That source also describes a short history of the problem.
The people who send such unsolicited messages are frowned upon as perhaps the most unethical of beings, spreading about attractive baits like “Make $2000 a day doing nothing” and catching only the most unsuspecting newcomers to the vast Internet. The fact that millions of new users jump into the online world every month clearly aids their cause.
Why the 'How to Spam' Club is Hated
Spam today is almost synonymous with the tempting messages that may often end up in the bulk mail folders of major email providers.
However, not all of this is linked to email, and one of its earliest forms showed up in Usenet groups well before the email flavor became a nuisance.
Quite possibly one of the first spam messages to appear in Usenet was the "Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon". This happened in January 1994, and was followed by a lottery related message that appeared in April the same year.
Usenet newsgroups continue to be popular among certain groups of people, especially programmers and system administrators. The non-moderated groups are targeted by spammers, who seem to act with impunity. The regular users have mostly learnt to maintain their humor and ignore the unsolicited messages.
Email spam picked up momentum after the advent of free email, most notably hotmail in the mid-1990’s. Email service providers have grown greatly in sophistication and are pretty effective in filtering out unwanted messages, with the Gmail spam filter being perhaps the most effective and explicit in its battle against the menace. There also has been the draconian measure of Windows Live Hotmail causing suspected spam messages to vanish from both the Inbox and Junk Mail folders to deliver the ultimate discouragement to spammers.
Who Exactly Sends Out those Messages?
There are two methods of sending out spam, either through automated means or human farms.
A popularly used way is that of botnets, which is basically a massive network of hijacked computers that run malware and transmit messages to stolen email addresses. Spammers deploy dedicated software programs that spin different versions of messages in the hope of sounding different each time to lure gullible users into buying the stuff they're try to sell. – they end up with nonsensical text on most occasions.
Human farms consist of people employed to craft messages and send them to previously harvested email addresses. This method can often fall in the grey area, even though it is mostly unethical.
The first line of my article states this pest is 'sometimes difficult to clearly define' – legitimate marketing emails may end up irritating users who voluntarily signed up for newsletters, resulting in spam alerts to email services and jeopardizing of the brand reputation.
Has Action by the Authorities and the Tech Industry Made a Difference?
The answer is, yes and no.
Law enforcement authorities have cracked down on several occasions, mainly in the United States, resulting in small deterrents to budding spammers.
Worldwide spam received a body blow in 2008 when McColo, a hosting provider was thrown off the Internet by upstream providers Global Crossing and Hurricane Electric. McColo hosted a significant volume of botnets that were responsible for sending out messages automatically and in massive bulk. Its termination from service was the death knell for over 70 per cent of the entire world’s junk email.
More Good News: Email Spam Levels Remain Low After Rustock Botnet's Fall
In 2011, an Internet security team spearheaded by Microsoft successfully busted the Rustock botnet, which was responsible for over 30 billion spam messages daily. Some experts feared another major botnet would take over charge, but that clearly hasn't happened.
Is this nuisance in its dying days? Not quite – battles may have been won, but the war continues, with unsolicited messages still a great majority among all email.
Why are Spammers Continuing to Go About their Business?
The reason is simple: Lack of awareness among both marketers and new users.
Some marketers fail to realize there are more ethical and pleasant ways to spread word about their products, and resort to the incredibly cheap tactic of bulk mailing. I have found an appalling lack of knowledge on this subject, and it is not surprising that online groups frequented by budding web publishers get posts like "Hey guys, I’m selling 7 million email addresses from all over the world! Anyone interested?"
New users have a tendency to trust most of everything that appears on their screens, and this should stop. Emails that border on unethical marketing practices should be reported – every mail provider allows this through just a click – suspicious links in email must never be opened – they could install malware and ultimately enrol your computer into botnets. Internet search results that appear to have abused the system and made it to the top should never be clicked through.
The fight to make the Internet a cleaner place requires efforts from everybody involved. Otherwise, we will have an increasing number of search queries and emails joining the club of ‘online pharmacy’, further eroding the trust we have in information obtained online.